Researchers found 14,400-year-old charred bread in northeastern Jordan
Credit: Photo by Oksana Vejus / EyeEm via Getty Images

For a long time, people believed that the advent of breadmaking was during the late neolithic period, around the same time that people began farming, just over 10,000 years ago. This would make sense, right? People would grow grains they'd domesticated, harvest them, and try to make something from them with fire. But a study published yesterday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has found evidence that people were baking bread 14,400 years ago, before—as far as we know—agriculture existed.

The team of researchers from the University of Copenhagen, University College London, and University of Cambridge made their discovery on an archaelogical dig in northeastern Jordan. "The discovery of charred food remains has allowed for the reconstruction of the chaîne opératoire for the early production of bread-like products," they wrote in their paper. Essentially, it seems that the Natufian hunter-gathers who lived in the area used the ancient, wild versions of grains, like wild einkorn, and starchy root vegetables, like club-rush tubers, to create a kind of flatbread.

The Natufian people are notable because, unlike many cultures at the time, they were sedentary, not nomadic. This provided a rich area for archaelogical exploration: The researchers were able to examine charred foodstuffs left in constructed fireplaces, along with tools used for grinding and pounding. It's thought that they were able to grind cereals into a consistency very similar to modern flours.

There are a few reasons that the inhabitants of the archaeological site may have baked bread. First, baking can make some of the raw componants of bread more easily digestible and palatable. Secondly, researchers believe that they could have baked bread right before abandoning the site, which would suggest that they were stocking up on "light, nutritional, and easily transportable foodstuff" that could be stored for a significant amount of time. Thirdly, due to the intensive nature of the breadmaking process, bread could have been a special treat, saved for feast days or hosting important guests.

Now that it's been established that breadmaking has been around for far longer than we previously thought, the researchers say there are two important things left to discover. First, according to researcher Dr. Amaia Arranz Otaegui, they will "evaluate if the production and consumption of bread influenced the emergence of plant cultivation and domestication at all." And then they will, according to researcher Professor Tobias Richter, "Try and reproduce this bread experimentally and see what it tastes like."